Monday, September 19, 2011

Fire on the mountain....

..lightning in the air! The *tune starts playing through my head whenever those thunder storms start up every fire season and we get a strike that starts something to blazing (*outlaw country --Marshall Tucker -- from yer mama n papa's younger days ;)

Though the story line of the song really has nothing to do with this journal entry I’ve always just like the cadence and flow of the title and  music… well that, plus those 2 lines are so appropriate to 1) -being a young woman actually working on the fire lines (another story for another day) 2) -living in the Golden State where forest & brush fires are a normal part of the year’s activities; and 3) -as Papa aptly stated "..back to the land of volcanoes and forest fires", while we stood gazing south into the distant forest-fire-induced hazy view from the Hwy 97 Mountain Identifier overlook near the Oregon/California border on our return trip to the U.S. this summer.

In the 24 hrs between last Sunday and Monday California had 10,966 strikes with almost 2 dozen of them starting fires in and around the eastern part of our county. The lightning was so close that the thunder booms shook the house and rattled the windows.. it was all very exciting! Well, for us, at least. Jenny-the-dog-face girl didn’t like it one bit. She quivered and quaked through the whole thing, crashing through the back door at one point and racing into the living room to cower at our feet, which is unusual, as you know; both the wanting to be in the house (she loathes it) and her ‘storm-terror’. Interestingly enough, we learned the next day that as dogs age they can become fearful of the crash and boom of thunder. 70 dog years.. yep. She qualifies.

So, back to the story… that evening one of these big strikes hit the hillside across the valley from us and started a blaze. Fortunately, this time, it didn’t get out of control like that one back in ‘08 when they were evacuating our area. Still, things got interesting and we had front row seats for this year’s event.

Remember when you kids were little and the thunderstorms brought torrential downpours and sometimes hail along with the lightning ..but in all these more recent years we just get the dry lightning storms? This one happened to bring bucket-loads of rain; however it must not have been widespread, since this fire, which seemed to be doused by the rain soon after the strike, laid low for 2 days and then came back to life Wednesday afternoon when the wind kicked up.

*Click On Pics to Enlarge*

For over 4 hours Papa and I watched a helicopter make trip after trip to the creek and pond and fly repeatedly to the burn. At one point Papa jumped on his bicycle and rode down to the bridge to see it 'up close and personal' as it flew in. About an hour after the initial attack began we heard the distinct deep, low rumble of the air tanker and got to see some great coordination going on between both birds as they bombarded the fire with the red retardant and more water. These pilots are so darn good. It’s always a complete thrill to see them in action. After several passes by the fixed-wing bomber the helicopter soldiered on alone..

Rising from the creek w/a full bucket of water (and wild trout?!?)
Dropping it on the fire - direct hit!

Enter the reinforcement! 
Beautiful drop (no longer using borate -which was toxic & created sterile soil- new retardants are less toxic & fertilizer enhanced to encourage plant regrowth after the fire)
Drat, a miss! (plume  of water to the left of the diminishing smoke)

Working the ponds
By 6 o’clock the sky was empty of aircraft and we figured they had to get back to the Chester airfield and were done for the night. But then, just before dusk, we heard the whump whump whump of the helicopter coming back. Instead of his water bucket there was a long line below the belly carrying what looked like 3 big ol’ balloons. Papa says, “They’re full of equipment! They must be taking supplies up to a hand crew.” We grab the binoculars, and sure enough, we’re able to spot a crew way up in the lava beds and watch as they get the goods from the helicopter. Man! What a hike they must have had over the mountain. This side of the hill has no roads and is completely covered in lava fields and lava ridges. We are surprised (and delighted!) to see them appear on the scene. I’m still curious to know what they must have gone through to get there and how they figured out HOW to get there! I’m gonna have to find someone in-the-know and find out.

Anyway, as the sky completely darkens, and just prior to moonrise, we see a ring of glowing yellow lights set up around the area. There isn’t much smoke at the site anymore but naturally there are ‘hot spots’ all over the burned area and the crew will most likely be either watching for flare-ups or doing mop up, or both, through the night. Feels nice to be going to a comfortable bed here at the house knowing a group of hard-working brave souls are keeping an eye on things up there.

The next morning we watch as another helicopter flies over the house with another load of water and supplies for the firefighters on the mountain. The smoke is non-existent now and any danger to the valley is gone. Tremendous attack job on this blaze. Wish I could watch a long extensive documentary on the whole 3 day adventure… as it was, the excitement provided literally hours of intense interest and lots of distraction for Papa and I while we were nursing our miserable colds…

Saturday, September 17, 2011

...home grown tomato date (summer stuff part 3)

Today Papa and I went to our favorite nursery for a special Tomato Tasting event. Thursday, funny Papa had said, "I'll take you if you drive" ;)

The sun was shining, the air was warm, fountains were splashing and trickling, plants were blooming, and the party was free.. excellent combination! (click on each pic to enlarge them)

There was live music, tomato tasting, fresh Italian bruschetta (nice, but I like Papa's Mexican salsa better), and a couple little booths set up selling wares, all to benefit the local Humane Society.

We sampled some pretty uniquely named and colored tomatoes (chocolate cherry and green zebra?!?) as well as the familiar ones (early girl and sweet 100's), and then voted for our favorite varieties. You'd write the name of one regular and one cherry tomato on a ticket stub and then put them into the little terra cotta pots next to the dish.

The zebra's were green, striped, and crisp and were really rather nice. They had a pleasant tomato flavor and didn't taste 'green' or unripe at all. Their crispness was unexpected but still quite agreeable and rather fun to experience. I just might pick up a plant at the nursery next year as a novelty...

The chocolate cherry ones, thankfully, didn't have a hint of chocolate flavor. They were sweet but I just couldn't get past the color or name to really enjoy them much.

(you've got to click on this pic to really appreciate that odd color!)
I found a new cherry/grape tomato to grow in the garden next year: Jelly Bean. It is so sweet and delicious even you non-tomato eating kids will like it... even tastier than the pear tomatoes we used to grow! There wasn't enough 'bite' to them to satisfy Papa. I read they come in both red & yellow so I think I may try one of each next Spring. Perhaps the red ones will be more acidic..

I would love to have brought these beautiful metal garden fence features home with us but each piece was almost $100 bucks, so I took a picture instead :)

Great way to spend a late summer-like Saturday afternoon! Thanks for 'taking' me, honey. I'll be our driver anytime =)

(yes, kids, that's actually a photo of your mother. Can you believe it?!? Look in the center of the pic; just under the tent wearing the white top, brown skirt - me, not the tent. I was coming back from about my 4th 'sampling' of those Jelly Bean tomatos :)
(..a little blurry; Papa's learning how to work my camera :)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

...Summer Thrills (part 2)

From the first appearance in Spring to the tail-end of Summer the scent and sight of beautiful deep red strawberries can always make me smile.

It seems I have a life-time of nostalgic reasons…

* There is a vague, pleasant memory of expansive fields with neat rows of the low-growing plants, warm sunshine, and sweet, fruity, strawberry-scented air from a time when my Grandma Mola took the Aunts and me (and maybe some siblings?) to a ‘you-pick’ strawberry farm.

* Long before I met & married Papa I had bought my very first set of new dishes and chose them specifically because they were embellished with a strawberry fruit and blossom motif.

* Before we settled down to raise a family Papa and I worked in logging and lived in several awesome forest and meadow areas near each job. The first ‘homes’ we had were either campers, tents, or small travel trailers (that we would borrow or buy at one time or another) we'd set up beside a spring or creek. One of the best times was a gorgeous summer and fall spent up at Bidwell Springs below Butte Lake. Quiet, peaceful and private, it was at this camp that we stayed the longest and where I found some wild strawberry plants and transplanted them to create a small strawberry bed there in the woods.

* Eventually we began living in actual houses and I was either buying strawberries by the flat or growing domesticated plants; passing along to my babies the pleasure of hunting for the sweet treats under the lush green leaves.

* Ben liked to ‘drive’ an emptied flat as his imaginary car...

* ...and ever since she was little Abby Jayne has asked for strawberry shortcakes (made with angel food cake) for almost of every one of her birthdays...

* One of our all-time favorite Eli-o quotes comes from an encounter with strawberries when he was 5 years old. Standing out in the middle of our small berry patch he held up a beautiful specimen. With his cute little Eli voice completely indignant he queries: “Why? WHY? is this strawberry red when it tastes so sour?!”

He was a bright little guy and knew you waited until they were red and sweet before you picked them …humph! the unmitigated gall of this berry passing itself off as anything but what it’s supposed to be! 

Abby and I think it is utter blasphemy to dip strawberries in sugar or chocolate. But! we do always appreciate them made into a pie! As soon as the rhubarb is big enough, we'll start the Spring with Crumb Topped Strawberry Rhubarb Pie. When the rhubarb is done it's on to the delicious and simple (and no added sugar!) Light Strawberry Pie made with both berries and crushed pineapple

Today is most likely the last time this season I’ll be making this old family favorite. To be fully enjoyed it has to have plenty of whipped cream available… it’s just not the same without it! My recipe states 'whipped cream for garnish', but that's bogus. Each serving needs to be absolutely smothered in it. Remember cousin Paco Bean's statement, kids: 'At the Baker Hause they put whipped cream on EVERYTHING!'

Once I went to make the pie and found I didn’t have a box of sugar-free vanilla pudding (not a staple in the pantry), so I created a substitute that works awesome. Now, if only I could do that with the gelatin part of the recipe!

Sugar free pudding mix substitute:
1/3 c Splenda
3 T cornstarch
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla

One last important note: a purchased graham cracker crust will do but is inferior to a homemade one! Here's the 'no-extra-added-sugar' one I make:

Graham Cracker Crust 
1 ¼ c cracker crumbs
1/4  c Splenda
1/3  c butter, melted
Mix crumbs, splenda, melted butter. Press firmly against bottom and sides of pie plate. Bake @ 350° for 10 min. Cool and fill.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Last of the Summer thrills (part one :)

Ahhh... Summertime and the outdoor life! Growing up near the border of Mexico surrounded by orange and lemon groves, eucalyptus trees and mustard fields nestled between gently rolling hills gave me the start to my love affair with nature and warm weather. The Pacific Ocean, surfers, and sandy beaches were a mere 5 miles away. 

Blue skies, puffy white clouds, soft summer breezes and room to roam are my clearest and best memories. If you add to those, fresh vine- bush- and tree-ripened fruit perfuming the air and bursting with juice, you’ve got my idea of Heaven. 

In honor of those days -and the awesome high temperatures we’re enjoying here in our mountain valley between the volcanoes- I'm going to be waxing poetic on a few of my favorite seasonal pleasures. 

This first one harks back to that childhood of long ago. My dad would cut sweet, golden, fragrant cantaloupes in half and spoon out the seeds to form a bowl. Into that bowl he'd put a scoop of rich, creamy, vanilla ice cream. Voila! an instant individual-serving treat. I made a point to insure each spoonful had both melon and ice cream in it. 

Papa Baker doesn’t share this particular passion, having different ideas of 'delicious', and foregoes the ice cream-in-melon (“..but hey, I’ll take the ice cream as a second course!”). A sprinkle of sea salt suits him much better. 

Just the other day, while slicing cantaloupe to pack in his lunch, I learned it’s always puzzled him that I cut them open along the ‘equator’ instead of blossom to stem end. 

‘Hmm… I don’t know why I do it the round-y round way. I’ve never really thought about it; it’s just the way I’ve always done it.’ 

I momentarily puzzled on the ‘why' & remembered that old-fashioned summer treat of ice cream in the melon bowl. It’d become a natural habit to just always cut them into a 'bowl' even if I was just slicin' and dicin' or serving my other favorite style: slicing and making cross cuts, but not all the way through, so it can be bent backwards and pop up little cantaloupe mountains that can be easily eaten straight from the rind. That's how we did it for our tadpoles (see exhibit 'A' ..for Abby, naturally :)

Papa pointed out that when I cut 'em open my way it always makes for an indented weird piece (where the stem is) in the lengthwise slices. Plus, that makes it off-kilter when you go to cut the wedges off the rind to make chunks. All these years of habitual slicing and it dawns on me how right he is! 

…funny how many things we do, with nary a thought, that have their foundation in an old family tradition.

So what did I gain from this little domestic kitchen experience? 1) Vanilla ice cream added to the marketing list and 2) a return to an old favorite summer treat. Oh. Ya. and my new improved method for slicing melons :P 

So it only took me several decades to learn the ‘normal’ way to cut cantaloupe wedges. I'm living proof that you can teach an old dog (or dame ;) new tricks.

**Word of caution** 
The melon must be truly sweet for it to compliment the addition of vanilla ice cream. Ripening tip: get as nice and yellow a melon as you can. See if you get a good cantaloupe-y scent from the stem end. Put the melon in a paper bag to ripen up, checking daily to make sure it doesn’t go bad. 

With today’s poor marketing tactics there is no hope for the melons picked so early they rot before they ripen, but I have been seeing great success (mostly) with the paper bag trick. When necessary I use a sprinkling of stevia to help an already cut melon be a bit more acceptable...

Monday, September 5, 2011

Welcome to the mountains....

Hooray! This is the new and exciting Baker Family Journal! From now on all the posts will be by my mama. Hope you have fun reading :)